Sonia Sarkar, Communication Officer at UNICEF India

“It is for our own safety and health,” says 13-year-old Yashwanth, a student of Morarji Desai Residential School in Bengaluru.  His face lights up into a bright smile when asked to translate the messages on the placard he is waving. Yashwanth is one of the 200 students who have come to witness the historic launch of the measles-rubella (MR) vaccination campaign in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.

The campaign targets around 410 million children across the country, the largest ever immunisation campaign of its kind. The vaccine will be provided for free in schools, health facilities and at outreach session sites. Launched in five states and Union Territories including Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Lakshadweep and Goa, the campaign will be expanded to other parts of India over the next two years and will be later integrated into India’s Universal Immunization Programme.

The campaign marks the introduction of the rubella vaccine in India’s childhood immunisation programme for the first time. Rubella, which is commonly referred to as German measles is a mild infection, but can have serious consequences if it occurs in pregnant women.

“If a pregnant woman gets rubella in her early weeks of gestation, it can develop into Congenital Rubella Syndrome (CRS), which is not treatable. CRS often leads to miscarriage and stillbirth,” said Dr. N.K Arora from the Inclen Trust, an Indian health research network. “Children born to mothers suffering from CRS are likely to develop irreversible hearing loss, blindness and heart defects”.

The newest addition to India’s routine immunisation programme also protects against measles, a major killer of small children. Highly contagious, it spreads through coughing and sneezing. Of the 134,200 measles deaths globally in 2015, around 49,200 occurred in India – nearly 36 percent. Those who survive are more vulnerable to other serious illnesses such as diarrhoea and pneumonia.

UNICEF/2016/ S.Sarkar: Yashwanth, a student of Morarji Desai Residential School, Bengaluru.

The small wooden placards that Yashwanth and his friends are carrying at the launch function also display the time and place for vaccination in the local language.  This method has been adopted to help ensure that mothers turn up on time to vaccinate their children. The 2009 Coverage Evaluation Survey showed that 40 per cent of mothers were either not aware of when and where the vaccination sessions are being held and/or did not understand the importance of vaccination. This can mean that children miss out on vaccination. This time, school children are eager to do their bit to raise awareness about the new measles-rubella vaccination campaign in their schools, homes and neighbourhoods.

Yashwanth is one of the 16.5 million children in Karnataka who will receive the vaccine. Separated by a few rows from the school children, hundreds of community health workers dressed in uniform pink sarees witness the momentous launch in Bangalore.  Mary, a government health worker from North Bengaluru, mobilises communities for regular rounds of routine immunisation. “I feel happy and very proud to be able to contribute to this important health initiative, which will keep our children and mothers safe,” she says. These village level female health workers represent a silent yet powerful workforce to support large public health campaigns.

UNICEF/ 2016/S. Sarkar: Mary, a frontline worker from North Bengaluru in Karnataka

The work of Mary and her colleagues has international backing too. Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF are supporting the Indian Government with micro-planning, monitoring and implementation of the campaign.

“Breaking the cycle of transmission and eliminating this contagious disease is a priority,” says Louis Georges Arsenault, UNICEF India representative. “UNICEF lauds the efforts of government and partners in making the measles-rubella campaign a success, simultaneously with strengthening of the health system for achieving high routine immunisation coverage.”

A special drive to create awareness among parents, teachers, frontline workers and local doctors has also seen partners such as Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Lions Club, the Indian Academy of Pediatricians and the Indian Medical Association join forces to make the campaign a success.

Through collaboration and persistence, India has done what it takes to make  vaccines launches like the one in Bengaluru happen. As the ceremony comes to a close, school children and health workers join government officials to release orange, white and green balloons into the sky. It is a symbolic celebration of a nation’s determination to protect children like Yashwanth from the suffering and death that diseases like measles and rubella can bring.